They stand like modern-day Stonehenge monuments, the 14 bridges completed on the first segment of the high-speed rail project that voters approved in 2008. 

Three governors have backed the project, Swarzenegger, Brown, and now Newsom, but the work, which was supposed to have been completed in 2017, remains unfinished. The main reason is the California High Speed Rail Authority’s failure to obtain the project’s land through negotiation or eminent domain.

Last month the Authority pulled out the Covid card as yet another reason for the snail’s pace of work on the project. In this iteration of a “business plan” (sixth so far), the Authority touts its diversity in the employment of some 1,100 construction workers from 43 counties. It also stressed that so far, “55 percent of total high-speed rail program expenditures occurred in disadvantaged communities throughout California.” The Central Valley has the highest level of unemployment in the state, even though 43 percent of the workers on the rail job call the region home.

The California Legislature was supposed to have the business plan in hand last December. The agency explained the delay in releasing the strategy this way: “… due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Administration and the Authority worked with legislative leadership to extend the adoption of the Business Plan. Final submission to the Legislature is expected in April 2021.”

Recently the L.A. Times uncovered some of the real reasons why California’s high-speed rail project is failing when they published a letter from Tutor-Perini, the lead contractor on the Central Valley portion of the project.

In what the newspaper called “a scorching 36-page letter to California high-speed rail officials,” the contractor outlined a laundry list of failures by the state agency that has led to massive cost overruns and missed deadlines.

A key complaint is the revolving door of leadership at the Authority. While the new bosses learn their jobs, the rest of the staff failed to secure agreements with key players in the process, including the railroad and utility companies, who have to relocate hundreds of connections to eventually allow for passage of the tracks. 

Most importantly, according to the letter, the Authority has failed to obtain the land through negotiation or eminent domain to allow the contractor to complete the construction work. As of mid-November, construction teams can not build on more than 500 parcels in the Fresno area because the Authority still lacks “possession or proper documentation,” according to the letter. 

“It is beyond comprehension that as of this day, more than two thousand and six hundred calendar days after [official approval to start construction] that the authority has not obtained all of the rights of way…” wrote Tutor Perini’s Vice President of Operations Ghassan Ariqat to Garth Fernandez, the contracting chief at the state rail authority.

The conditions described by the letter jeopardize the project’s long-range goals because it is already struggling to complete even a portion of its original vision of a Los Angeles-to-San Francisco bullet train. The letter indicates that delays and cost overruns are poised to grow worse.

Push for Faster Transportation Funding

In January, a coalition of labor trade unions and industry associations sent a letter to virtually everybody in Sacramento who has anything to do with transportation funding urging swift spending of new federal funding as part of the Coronavirus recovery effort. The $46 billion nationally for transportation projects is coming from California’s share of the Coronavirus Response and Relief Supplementation Appropriations Act (CRRSAA), signed into law on December 27, 2020. ECAwas one of the signatories on this effort

Here’s what they said: “The Department of Finance has projected a $1.8 billion loss in gasoline excise tax revenue alone from the start of the pandemic through FY 2024-25. Considering the $10 billion for transportation infrastructure provided for in the CRRSAA, the American Association of State Highway Officials recently identified that state departments of transportation will need another $18 billion through 2024 to fill the funding hole created by the pandemic. This loss of revenue has a direct impact on the ability of state and local transportation agencies to put multimodal transportation infrastructure projects out to bid, create jobs for essential workers, and stimulate the economy for the betterment of all Californians. Our overarching interest in how California invests its CRRSAA funding is three-fold:

  1. Move Quick, Create Jobs, and Spur Economic Recovery. 
  2. Equitable Distribution–Support State, Regional, and Local Programs. 
  3. Support State Transportation Goals – Focus on Multimodal Safety and Efficiency.